BBC comedy set in smokers' room makes cigarettes 'sociable', say campaigners

Once, it was commonplace for participants in BBC programmes - whether an actor in Play for Today or a pundit in a studio discussion - to have a cigarette in their hands.

Now, as smokers become ever more the target of vilification and pressure builds for a ban on smoking in public places, the corporation has been attacked for "normalising" the act of lighting up by showing a new comedy series set in an office smokers' room.

Called, predictably enough, The Smoking Room, the series starts later this month on the digital channel BBC3, targeted at 25- to 34-year-olds.

Cigarettes form the backdrop to the humour, which focuses on an oddly assorted bunch of employees united only by their love of nicotine. Its stars include Robert Webb, Siobhan Redmond and Paula Wilcox.

If the eight-part sitcom series is a success, it is almost certain to be seen by a mass audience on the main BBC2 channel, in the wake of other BBC3 hit comedies such as Nighty Night and Little Britain.

Even before an episode has been shown, the anti-tobacco campaign group Action on Smoking and Health UK (Ash) said the series risked portraying smoking as an acceptable social habit. A spokeswoman for Ash said: "If the characters are smoking it normalises smoking, which goes against government aims and our aims. The whole thrust of the anti-tobacco campaign is to de-normalise smoking. If we're to make any gains in reducing tobacco consumption we have to get away from the idea that smoking is normal, not just a minority activity.

"This programme could be, however indirectly, conveying the impression there's something clubbable and sociable about smoking when in fact the opposite is true - it's a very anti-social habit."

However, those behind the series have defended it, saying it did not make smoking acceptable. Brian Dooley, the writer said: "I don't think anybody who'd watch the programme would think we were making out that smoking was glamorous. In fact I was in an anti-smoking frame of mind when I wrote the series, the result of being annoyed with myself for taking up smoking again, and as a result there is at least one anti-smoking joke in it in each episode."

The producer, Peter Thornton, said: "The series isn't about smoking or smokers, but about people passing the time of day and the conversations that accompany that. It could just as easily be set in a waiting room or in a lift," he said.

Ash said this was not a satisfactory explanation. "If the aim is just to have a setting where a group of people pass the time of day, then there are all sorts of other settings that could have been chosen."

The row over the programme has come at a time when the anti-smoking bandwagon is gathering strength around the world. Last week, Norway became the second country after Ireland to ban smoking in public places, and Tony Blair indicated for the first time that he was considering giving councils powers to outlaw smoking in public altogether. Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, has said that if he is reselected he will lobby for London to follow New York with a public ban.

The criticism of the BBC is part of broader concern at the way smoking is portrayed in the media. In March, Deborah Arnott, Ash's director, wrote to Ofcom, the media watchdog, calling upon it to incorporate a clause in its code of practice stating that smoking should be avoided wherever possible in programmes popular with children, and should never be portrayed as a "glamorous, or desirably adult, activity".

The BBC's producer guidelines stress that a balance has to be struck between a realistic acceptance that many people smoke but that it also was no longer acceptable to a large part of the population.

A BBC spokesman said: "That's why you will no longer see smoking in, for instance, a studio discussion, but you might see Dot Cotton in EastEnders smoking, because she's typical of the type of person, by her age and class, who might smoke. It's essential to the character. But you won't find the younger characters smoking very often.''

Last week, The Independent disclosed that British-American Tobacco, Britain's biggest cigarette-making company, had been testing cigarette flavours including chocolate and spearmint, which campaigners said would make them more attractive to young people.

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